(NOTE: I am aiming for clarity here, rather than absolute exactitude.  That being said, if you see anything in error, please feel free to contact me! )


Accent:  Generally speaking, the way that somebody from a particular place or cultural group pronounces words.  Unlike a dialect an accent does not traditionally refer to word usage, syntax or semantics.

Acoustic Analysis: A type of research in which the sounds of a dialect or language are studied with sound analysis equipment for various properties.  Acoustic analysis is often used to measure vowel position, vowel length, and prosody (see prosody, below).

Advancing (or advanced):  An alternate word for  fronting (see fronting defintion below).

African-American Vernacular English: The dialect spoken by many African-Americans in the United States.  The dialect is a mixture of American Southern English features with arguably some features of older creole languages.  Because of intense segregation, this dialect is spoken in areas that otherwise do not have speakers of American Southern English, such as New York City, Detroit and Los Angeles.

Allophone: One of a group of sounds that can be used to pronounce a single phoneme (see phoneme, below).  For example, an English speaker might say “going” in formal situations, but say “goin” when speaking in less formal contexts.  In this case “-ng” and “-n” are both allophones of the same phoneme, /ng/.

Alveolar Ridge: The part of the mouth between the upper teeth and the hard palate.  Sounds of speech are referred to as “alveolar” when they involve this part of the vocal apparatus.

Approximant: A sound created when one part of the vocal apparatus is close to another part without quite touching.  Examples are the “w” sound in “water” and the “y” in “yes.”  The “r” sound in most dialects of English is also an approximant, made by the tongue being close to the alveolar ridge.


Backing (or backed):The process whereby a sound of speech (usually a vowel) is pronounced at a further back position in the mouth.  Technically, this usually means some part of the tongue is pulled back somewhat; however, it can also entail any part of the vocal apparatus.  The opposite is fronting (see definition below).

Bilabial: A type of consonant sound that is produced with both lips.  Examples include English “b” and “p.”

Broad transcription: In the International Phonetic Alphabet, Broad Transcription refers to a way of transcribing the phonological structure of a language or dialect.  This type of transcription describes the way that languages and dialects are broadly pronouned, rather than getting into the specific allophones or precise realizations of pronunciation.  The opposite of this is narrow transcription (see definition, below).

Brummie:  The dialect of English spoken in the city of Birmingham, UK.  Also refers to people from Birmingham.


California Vowel Shift: A shift in the vowels of California English.  These pronunciations are often exaggerated when people imitate the (semi-apocryphal) “valley girl” accent.

Canadian Raising: A process in Canadian English accents in which the diphthongs in the words “about” and “kite” are raised before unvoiced consonants.  Therefore “about” sounds something like “uh-buh-oot” whereas “kite” sounds a bit like “kuh-eet.”  These features can be heard in a handful of American accents as well.

Centralized (usually in terms of vowels):  Refers to vowels that are pronounced between front and back vowels (see fronting and backing definitions).

Cockney: The traditional, working-class dialect of East London.  This term is also sometimes used to describe working-class Greater London dialects in general.

Consonant: A speech sound made by completely or partially blocking the vocal tract.  That is to say, a consonant is created when some part of the vocal apparatus (tongue, lips, etc.) blocks air from completely passing through.  Examples of consonants in English are the “p” sound in “people” and the “f” sound in “Fred.”

Coronal: A sound that is created using the front section of the tongue.  Examples of coronals are the /t/, /d/ and /s/ sounds in English.

Cot-Caught Merger:  Refers to a dialect feature in which the vowel sounds in the words “cot” and “caught” are pronounced the same.  This is typically a feature of accents in the Western United States, Canada, Western Pennsylvania, parts of Appalachia, and Northeastern New England.

Creole: A language formed through the contact of one or more non-mutually-intelligible languages. In cruder words, a language that contains features of more than one language. In English, examples are Jamaican creole, Gullah (on the Atlantic coast of the American South) and Liberian Creole (or Kreyol).


Dental: A type of consonant that involves the teeth.  The “th” in English “thing” is an example of a dental consonant.

Diacritic: In terms of the International Phonetic Alphabet, this refers to “add-on” symbols that are used to modify the common symbols of the IPA.

Dialect: The particular manner of speech of a group of people.  This includes accent (the way a person pronounces words), as well as grammatical features and word usage.

Dialect levelling: When dialects within a country, region or demographic become more similar to one another.  Examples of this include the spread of General American in the United States and the spread of Estuary English in the UK.

Diphthong: A vowel sound that is actually a combination of two vowel sounds.  A good example in English is the “ou” in “round.”  This is created in General American by combining a broad “ah” sound with an “oo” sound.

Dorsal: A sound created with the middle part of the tongue (rather than the tip or front).

Down East Accent (or Down East Dialect):  The dialect of English spoken in Southeastern Maine.  Popularly, this term also sometimes refers to old-fashioned New England dialects in general.


Estuary: A term used to refer to a middle-class British dialect which mixes vernacular features of Southeast England with more middle-class dialect features.  It is mostly heard in and near London, but its influence has arguably spread to the Midlands and the North as well.  This dialect rose to prominence in the decades after World War II, and can be heard by many well-known contemporary Britons.


Fricative: A type of consonant that is created by one part of the vocal apparatus creating friction with another part.  For example, the “f” sound in “Fred” is created by the bottom lip causing friction with the upper teeth.

Fronting (or fronted):  The process whereby a sound of speech (usually a vowel) is pronounced at a more front position in the mouth.  This usually means some part of the tongue is pushed further forward; however, it can also entail any part of the vocal apparatus.  The opposite is backing (see definition above).


Geordie: The dialect of English spoken in the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.  It is also used to refer to the people from Newcastle, and occasionally to various accents in Northeastern England.

General American (shortened as GenAm):  The standard dialect of American English; what non-Americans usually refer to when they speak of the “American Accent.”  Typically heard by newscasters, TV actors and the upper-middle class.

Glaswegian: The dialect of English spoken in the city of Glasgow, Scotland.  Also used to refer to people from Glasgow in general.

Glottal Stopping (or Glottal Stop):  A stop consonant created with the glottis (see definition below).  An example of a glottal stop in English is the Cockney pronunciation of “better” which sounds something like “be’uh.”  The “t” sound is a glottal stop.

Glottis: Generally speaking, this refers to a particular part of the vocal tract, namely the vocal folds and surrounding tissue.  Usually used in English in reference to the phenomenon of glottal stopping (see definition, above).

Great Vowel Shift: A process that occurred (roughly speaking) during the Renaissance whereby English vowels radically shifted into different positions. This gave rise to what we now think of as “modern English.”

Gullah: A creole language spoken by African-Americans in the outer banks of the Atlantic Southern states of the US.


Hiberno-English: The dialects of English spoken in Ireland.


International Phonetic Alphabet (shortened as IPA):  A notation system developed to describe the sounds of speech.


Lax: Usually refers to an attribute of a vowel that is pronounced closer to the center of the mouth.  The “i” in “kit” and the “u” in “put” are example of lax vowels in many dialects of English.

Lengthening: Pronouncing a speech sound for a prolonged duration.  In British English, for example, the “long-a” in “father” is pronounced longer than the “short-a” in cat.

Linguistics:  The study of language.  An academic in this field is referred to as a linguist.

Lowering (or lowered):  The process whereby a sound of speech (usually a vowel) is pronounced at a lower position in the mouth.  This usually means the tongue is at a lower position; however, it can also entail any part of the vocal apparatus.  The opposite of raised (see definition below).


Manner of Articulation: The way a particular consonant is produced.  Examples in include fricatives and approximants (see defintions above).

Mid-centralized: Describes a vowel position that is pronounced in a position closer to the center of the mouth.

Monophthong: A single, pure vowel sound.


Narrow Transcription: In the International Phonetic Alphabet, this refers to a way of transcribing the sounds of a language or dialect so that it describes the precise way that words are pronounced.  Narrow transcriptionis often applied to individual speakers rather than entire groups.  This differs from broad transcription in that it generally doesn’t describe the overall structure of the sounds of a language or dialect.

Nasal: A type of consonant or vowel that is “nasal” in quality.  These sounds are produced by closing the back of the throat so that air can pass through the nasal cavity.  Examples in English include “m” and “n.”

Nasal Cavity: The opening in the head that surrounds the nose.

Northern Cities Vowel Shift: A process occurring in the speech of people living in areas around the Great Lakes such as Upstate New York, Michigan, Northern Ohio, Michigan, the Chicago area, and Wisconsin.  The vowels of General American English undergo a large-scale shift, creating the unique accent of this region.


Palatal: A type of consonant created with the tongue on or near the middle of the roof of the mouth.

Phone: In linguistics, this refers to a single sound created in speech.  This differers from a phoneme in that a phone does not necessarily carry any meaning.  For example, a baby can create numerous phones but these don’t necessarily relate to actual words.

Phoneme: The smallest unit of sound that carries meaning in a language.  In the word “about” for example, the “uh” in the first syllable, the “b” sound, the “ou” dipthong and the “t” sound are all phonemes.  Not to be confused with a phone, which refers to any sound, meaningful or not.  Phonemes usually have several allophones, or differing ways of pronouncing the same phoneme.

Phonetics: The study of the sounds of a language or dialect.  This differs from phonology in that it deals with the way sounds are actually realized in human speech, rather than the structures of sounds in languages and dialects.

Phonology: The study of the structure of sounds in a language or dialect.  In particular, phonology deals with how sounds create meaning in language.  Often confused with phonetics (see definition, above).

Pidgin: A simplified language that forms when speakers of different languages need to communicate.   Unlike creoles, pidgins are rather undeveloped, and often used for trade.  Many examples can be found in areas where European traders travelled, such as the African subcontinent, parts of India and Southeast Asia. Pidgins sometimes evolve into creoles.

Plosive: A consonant produced by closing some part of the vocal apparatus (see definition below), then releasing a sudden burst of air.  English examples include “p,” “b,” “k” and “t.”

Postalveolar: A consonant created by placing the tip of the tongue on or near the back of the alveolar ridge (see definition above).  An example is the “sh” in English “shoot.”

Prestige Dialect: A dialect that is favored among certain speakers of a language.  Examples of prestige dialects are Received Pronunciaion and General American.  Dialects that deviate from prestige dialects within a particular society are often stigmatized (see definition below).

Prosody: The “musicality” of a dialect or language.  This usually entails speech qualities like rhythm, vowel length, stress and intonation.


Raising (or raised): The process whereby a sound of speech (usually a vowel) is pronounced at a higher position in the mouth.  This usually means the tongue is raised to a certain degree; however, it can also entail any part of the vocal apparatus.  The opposite is lowered (see definition, above).

Received Pronunciation (shortened as RP):  Often thought of as the “standard British accent.”  Traditionally spoken by England’s upper- and upper-middle-classes.  Although sometimes regarded as posh and artificial among many British people, this dialect is what most Americans think of when they think of a “British accent.”

Retraction (or retracted):  Another word for the process of backing (see backing definition, above).

Retroflex: A type of consonant created by the tongue being placed on or near the roof of the mouth just behind the alveolar ridge (see definition above).

Rhotic / Rhoticity: This refers to the pronunciation of the letter “r” at the end of words like “water” or “car.”  In rhotic dialects, such as General American or most Irish dialects, this sound is clearly pronounced.  In non-rhotic dialects, such as London English or Australian English this sound is omitted.  So, for example, an Australian might pronounce “cart” as “caht.”  Informally, this is sometimes known as “r-dropping.”

Rounded: Describes a sound of speech (usually a vowel) that is pronounced with the lips rounded.  Opposite of unrounded. Examples include the vowels in English “room” and “put.”


Scottish Vowel-Lengthening Rule: A feature of some dialects of Scottish and Northern Irish English in which vowels are lengthened before certain consonants.

Scouse: The dialect of English spoken in Liverpool.  Also refers to people from Liverpool.

Stigmatization: A dialect, accent or language is stigmatized when it is considered less prestige than other dialects, accents or languages in a region or country.  This often entails dialects being considered “uneducated” or “lower class.”

Stress: Can refer to how a certain word is stressed in a sentence or phrase, usually by increasing the volume or duration of that word’s pronunciation.  For example, in the sentence “what do you mean?” most English speakers will stress the word “mean.”  Stress also refers to syllables being stressed within a particular word:  In “woman,” for example, the first syllable is usually stressed.

Strut-Foot Merger: A phenomenon in some English dialects where speakers raise the sound in words like “strut” and “fudge” toward the position of the vowel in words like “foot” and “good.”  Hence “cut” sounds to outsiders a bit like “coot.”  This feature is found in Northern England and the Eastern Coast of Ireland, particularly Dublin.


Tone (or tonal):  In linguistics, this refers to the particular pitch or intonation with which a vowel is pronounced.  Tonal languages are languages such as Chinese, Vietnamese and a number of African languages where vowel tone carries meaning.  


Unrounded: Describes speech sound (usually a vowel) pronounced without rounding the lips.  Examples in English are the sounds like “dress,” “cat” and “beak.”  The opposite of rounded.


Velar: A consonant created using the velum, or soft palate (back of the mouth).  An example is the “k” in English “king.”

Vocalization (or vocalized):  The process whereby a consonant becomes a vowel or semi-vowel.  In English we often apply this term to accents like Cockney, where the final “l” in words like “beautiful” becomes something like “w” or “oh.”  Hence Cockney “beautiful” can sound a bit like “beautifow.”

Voiced: A speech sound created with the vocal cords vibrating.

Voiceless: A speech sound created without the vocal cords vibrating.  In essence, “voiceless” sounds are whispered. Examples include the “s” sound in “Steve” and the “f” sound in Fred.

Vocal Apparatus: A general term applied to every human body part used to create speech.  This includes everything from the lips to vocal cords to the lungs.

Vocal Tract: The parts of the throat and mouth responsible for generating sound, as well as the nasal cavity.

Vowel: A sound created in human speech by air passing through an unobstructed airway.  That is, a vowel sound occurs when no part of the vocal apparatus (lips, tongue, etc.) blocks air from passing through the vocal tract.  Examples in English include the long “oo” in the word “goose,” the “ah” sound in “father,” and the “ee” sound in the word “bead.”

Vowel Shift: A process whereby the vowel structure of a language or dialect shifts, altering the pronunciation of words.  Examples include the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and the California Vowel Shift.


X-SAMPA:  A type of computer notation that mirrors the International Phonetic Alphabet when IPA symbols aren’t available.

Copright (c) 2011 by Ben Trawick-Smith. All rights reserved


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